Using Films to Understand Storytelling

Late yesterday, I got serious about trying the StoryClock concept. After watching this video, I saw how the “clock” approach could help me plot stories faster and better. And, so far, it’s definitely helping.

So, I was pretty excited about this. See, I already had notes – with times noted – from when I analyzed “story beats” in films, a couple of years ago.

Understanding Storytelling with Films

But, putting those notes onto a “clock” to see symmetry and foreshadowing and all those good things… I realized I’d been noting the times on the TV screen. (In other words, that line – with times noted – that appears when you pause, reverse, or fast-forward through a show.)

So, I worried that the entire clock could be thrown off by as many as 10 minutes, depending on how old the movie was, and how grandiose the opening titles. (The original “Pink Panther” movies come to mind.)

This morning, I re-watched one of my favorite films – in terms of plotting, anyway – and… wow! I’ve learned SO much since then, in terms of telling a story. Now, the movie looks entirely different.

That movie is Crimson Peak. It’s more stylish than most movies, but I won’t pretend the story is The Meaning Of Life. I just love the layers that del Toro puts into his films.

My original notes started at the seven-minute point, when I noted that the girl’s father gives her a pen, and that’s foreshadowing.

But now, I realize that even before the seven-minute point, there’s a funeral, and a scene that resonates with, oh, at least half the creepy scenes in the movie… and then a specific warning about the dangers ahead.

And the symmetry and foreshadowing and so on… they go on & on.

Why didn’t I put those scenes in my original notes?

Well, until I’d learned more about storytelling, I didn’t realize how important they were.

At the moment, this is pretty cool. A whole lot of “Oh, THAT’s how important those cues are, to have the story resonate with the reader.”

So, if you’ve been writing for a while, or have been studying plotting and story beats, go back and watch your favorite old movies. You may see things that were so subtle, you hadn’t noticed them before.

And, as a writer, that’s important. In many cases, you want your cues and foreshadowing to enrich your story as it unfolds.

In films and TV shows, you may see things you’d never paid attention to, until you looked as a writer.

Recommended Reading

If I were stranded on a desert island with pen, paper, and just two books about plotting, these might be those two books. I recommend owning them in paperback, so you can flip back & forth between the pages, quickly.

Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story, by James Scott Bell.

This may look like a thin, short book. Don’t let that fool you. It’s filled with useful insights.

In 14 steps, Bell explains what happens in every essential moment of a good story. And he explains it clearly.

For me, the biggest discovery was what he calls “the mirror moment,” where the protagonist comes face-to-face to the situation he/she/they have landed in… because they made mistakes. 

Adding that moment in a story can make a major difference in the impact on the reader. It adds to the suspense, as the reader wonders, “Will he/she/they get out of this mess? Was the lesson really and truly learned, this time?”

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need, by Jessica Brody

This explains the story beats of each of 10 basic plots/genres. It’s useful to understand how a romance is different from, say, a superhero story.

It’s more by-the-numbers than Bell’s Super Structure book is, but – especially for those new to plotting – this book is a time-saver. Big time.

(And, weirdly, that paperback is currently less expensive than buying it in Kindle format. But, at over 300 pages, there’s no way I’d want to be trying to flip back & forth through the pages in digital format.)

But… if you’re a new writer and you’re working on shorter fiction (“short reads”), you may want to take a look at How to Write Short Stories And Use Them to Further Your Writing Career, by James Scott Bell. It’s short, so it’s fine to read in Kindle. Also, he includes a lot of additional information about writing & publishing.

(If you don’t want to spend the $3.99 for the Kindle edition, here’s the most important point I learned from this book: “A great short story is about the fallout from one, shattering moment. What is a ‘shattering moment’? Well, it’s like when you shatter glass. You’ll never get the pieces together again.”)

Related Resources

Dan Harmon’s Story Circles (a bit dramatic/gruesome)

Plot Clock (at Fiction University) – a more formulaic approach, for authors

StoryClock products – notebooks, workbooks, etc. And here’s an explanation of how to use the notebook, but the video I posted at the top of this article is better, imho.

Do you know of a similar/better, circular plotting system? Let me know.

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